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German election: Free and fair for young voters?

Sandro Schroeder
September 7, 2017

Whether Angela Merkel stays office or Martin Schulz takes over the Chancellery likely won't be decided by the youth vote. Young people are simply outnumbered, leading some to ask how fair the election will be.

Young voters in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

In Germany, it's the older generations who decide the government.

Thirty percent of the electorate is above the age of 60, the under-30s represent just 15 percent. Those are the figures of the Federal Election Commissioner.

Pensioners' democracy?

Germany's demographic shift is increasingly benefiting older voters. The last election marked the first time that more than half of the electorate was over the age of 50.

The trend is clear when compared with data from the 1980 parliamentary election, when the youngest and oldest voter cohorts were more or less in balance. Back then, some 26.8 percent of voters were over 60, while 22.3 percent were under 30.

chart showing electorate by age group

The shift since then has shown that no party has managed to win an election with the younger vote alone. But the older vote is much more a predictor of success, and that will only become more pronounced in the near future. Added to this is the fact that since 2005, voter participation among people over 70 has increased to an above-average level.

That explains why the late former German President Roman Herzog was concerned when an unexpected pensions hike was agreed in 2008: "I fear that we're seeing the precursors of a pensioners' democracy. We have an increasing number of older people in Germany, and all the parties are disproportionately playing to them," Herzog told the popular German daily Bild at the time – reaping plenty of criticism for his remarks.

Wolfgang Gründinger, 33, shares Herzog's concerns. He's the author of two books on generational politics in Germany, "Alte Säcke Politik" (Old Grumpy Men Politics) and "Aufstand der Jungen" (Youth Uprising). He's also an active member of the Foundation for Generational Justice. "Every third voter is over the age of 60, and half of all SPD and CDU members (Germany's two major political parties) are over 60. And of course, in a democracy, policies are made for the strongest group of voters." Today, that's senior citizens.

"You can see it in the issues in this campaign, where young people's issues, such as education and digitalization, are all but ignored," said Gründinger.

Merkel-Schulz debate poll

Older voters are more future-oriented

Are Germany's seniors voting against the interests of the country's youth?

Perhaps not. A joint study by the Rheingold Institute and the Bertelsmann Foundation from 2014 debunks the popular opinion that the older generation is more focused on the present than the future. On the contrary, the study shows that older voters tend to be more future-oriented than young people and parents.

"We found that people who feel very strongly anchored in their political ideology find it easier to make decisions with long-term implications," said Christina Tillmann, one of the study's authors. In contrast, people between the ages of 19 to 32, also known as "Generation Wahl-O-Mat" after an app that tells users what party to vote for based on their responses to an election issues quiz, have more of a "shopping mentality when approaching an election." They tend to decide whom to support based on how they feel about individual aspects affecting their lives at a given time, Tillmann said.

Young Germans using the Wahl-O-Mat app
Germany's popular 'Wahl-O-Mat' app can help tell users which party their politcal views align withImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Voting rights from 16?

But it's not just demographic developments that give young voters a smaller share at the polls. Young people have had lower voter participation than older voters since 1953.

The SPD, and the opposition Greens and the Left party have all spoken out in favor of lowering the voting age to 16. Greens politician Anton Hofreiter, for example, said since "many decisions being made will affect young people for a long time to come, anyone from the age of 16 who wants to vote should be allowed to do so."

Author Wolfgang Gründinger says he'd go a step further, introducing voting rights for children and teens. "Every young person should have the right to vote as soon as they want to. Most would probably start exercising that right from the age of 12 or 13. But in principle, there should not be age limit for young people – there's no age limit for old people either."